March 11 Earthquake and Tsunami: A Personal Perspective

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 exactly one year ago—it’s March 11 in Japan even as I’m writing this on March 10—and the nuclear catastrophe that followed are personal to me: my wife is from Tokyo, and my in-laws live there. To our immense relief, no one we know was hurt. But others weren’t that lucky, and our thoughts and prayers are with them. The horrid numbers, updated as of March 10, 2012:

– Dead: 15,854

– Still missing: 3,155

– Living in shelters, temporary housing, or displaced nationwide: 343,935

In my posts about Japan, I’ve been critical of many of the things that Japan Inc. manages to accomplish, including. Today is different. And more personal. I’m attached to Japan, and the tragedy filled me with deep sorrow. But no one I know expressed these feelings better than my wife in her message sent to our friends four days after the disaster. It depicts what we’re already forgetting: the chaos in Tokyo during the hours and days that followed the earthquake, the emotions that came with it, and the unique Japanese ways of coping with it.

One friend who was working as a doctor at a hospital in Tsukuba, a city located north-east of Tokyo and harder hit than Tokyo, told me that the damage was substantial. The building survived, but ceilings fell, connecting corridors collapsed, and sprinklers went off and kept running. With elevators stopped, doctors, nurses, and staff were running up and down ten floors to care for their patients. She finally made it home the next morning after 10 hours of driving to reunite with her husband (also a doctor) and three children.

Other friends recounted their stories about the quake, an incredibly violent and relentless shaking that lasted 3 to 5 minutes. They were all scared to death. Some were on the 21st floor, others were on the 39th floor, and buildings were swaying like willow trees, and the world outside was rolling, and cabinets toppled, people were screaming and crying, and some felt seasick. Trains stopped running, and that night, many walked miles to get home, 4 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours. Some girls, limping on high-heels, couldn’t make it and found shelter somewhere on the way. One took a cab but got stuck in traffic for 7 hours and finally arrived at the nursery at midnight to pick up her baby. Others spent the night at their offices and ate emergency food distributed by their companies.

When they finally got home, they found shelves that had fallen over, and books, dishes, and objects were scattered on the floor, some were broken. The refrigerator door had opened, and the content was on the floor. Some had no power and water. And aftershocks continued incessantly.

That experience was traumatic, yet when they went on line or turned on the TV, they had to grapple with the devastation in the northern coastal areas where the tsunami had hit. And suddenly, their own experiences were nothing compared to the incomprehensible disaster unfolding in those regions, and we are all deeply saddened. I mourn and pray for those who lost their loved ones and for those whose loved ones are still unaccounted for.

Since the earthquake hit Japan, there is no single moment that I’m not thinking about this disaster and about Japan. Though I was in San Francisco when it hit, and I didn’t share the same experience with the people in Japan who actually went through this traumatic event, I’ve been engulfed with a deep sorrow, the kind of sorrow that I didn’t feel when a disaster hit Sichuan, Haiti, Sumatra, New Zealand, etc…. not even Kobe.

Tokyo is relatively calm now, though people are having a hard time securing power, gasoline, food, water, transportation, and some modes of communication. But it’s incredible that only 253 buildings in Tokyo collapsed and that only 7 people died. People are trying to find little things they can do to help those in the most devastated areas, such as saving power by not turning on the heater or not overloading the phone system with unnecessary calls.

People are nervous about each development of the nuclear crisis, while the shelves in supermarkets and convenient stores are becoming empty; supplies don’t arrive. But people are doing their best to perform their duties and to get their lives back to normal as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

The people in the Tokyo area are worrying about and cheering on the people in northern Japan, while the Japanese, like me, outside Japan are worrying about and cheering on the people in Tokyo, who are also distressed with these series of events. But sometimes once I’m alone, a sorrow creeps into my heart and tears well up against my will, without me knowing if it’s because I’m away from my country and thus more sentimental, or if it’s because of the gravity of the destruction.

For thousands of years, people in this archipelago have been slapped by Nature. Just when we forget how powerless we are in face of it, we’re reminded that we have no choice but to accept fate and submit to it in awe. But we’ve always stood up again and moved on. This time too, we will surely recover … but adjusted to the new situation.

However, unlike the destruction of buildings and infrastructure, the subsequent crisis at the nuclear power plants is hard to take. It was caused by the destructive force of Nature that was beyond our preparations, but the crisis and its consequences are clearly man-made—though tens of millions of people in the Tokyo area have benefited from this structure as a source of energy for modern life.

It will take a while to clear the chaos, but witnessing how people in Japan are acting during this ultra-stressful time, I cannot help but believe in their core strengths: persistence, patience, diligence, resilience, the sense of solidarity and community, an ability to sense and pay attention to unwritten orders—qualities I considered stuffy when I still lived in Japan. And I’m confident that spirit of the Japanese will overcome this hardship.

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